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  • Arielle Nóbile

Belonging Series Process: The Story of Alicia and Antonio Backstory

I first learned about Alicia Partnoy and Antonio Leiva almost 10 years ago. I was at a dinner at a friend of a friend's apartment around the holidays, and I was telling them about the documentary I was working on about the military dictatorship during the late 70's/early 80's in Argentina, aka the Dirty War. The hostess pulled out a book (which I actually borrowed and still have to this day — sorry, Celia!). It was The Little School, Alicia’s poetic memoir about her and her friends' time in a concentration camp in Bahia Blanca during the Dirty War.

Over the 8 years that I worked on that documentary (which, to do this day, remains unfinished), I was often told to read this book or see that film. Many of those recommendations I started but could not finish because of how descriptive they were about the traumas. I started and put down many a book because of how traumatizing it was just to read about it. I also played the character of a torture victim in a Chicago production of Griselda Gambaro’s play Information for Foreigners, I had fully invested myself as an actor into what that experience was like. Clearly not the same as truly living through it, but the closest I wanted to come.

So when I started reading Alicia’s book, I braced myself, prepared to be able to read no more than the first few paragraphs. Instead, I found myself absorbed in the humanness of the telling, the sense of humor, the beauty, the way she made the horrific circumstances somehow accessible, manageable. I couldn't stop reading it.

I reached out to Alicia on FB Messenger, and miracle of miracles, she responded. I flew to LA to interview her and fell in love with her spirit and her whole family! I was impressed at the level of trust she is able to have in people despite her past experiences. While we began the interview process in her office at Loyola Marymount University, by the second day she was inviting me into her home where I met and interviewed her husband Antonio, and met her younger two daughters, Eva and Anahi.

I don't know if she would describe herself in these terms but Alicia is what I consider to be a light-worker. She has spent years of her life working for social justice and equality for the marginalized, all the while writing beautiful important books and poetry, educating her students, raising her beautiful daughters, and enjoying life with her partner of almost 40 years, Antonio. Her books and her testimony helped to make sure that her perpetrators in Argentina faced the consequences of their inhumane actions. It took her decades to take them to justice, but she did not give up.

Antonio also spent time as a political prisoner during the Dirty War, though not in a clandestine prison as Alicia did. His story is equally compelling, as it speaks to what oppressive governments do to independent media. He was a film student and political activist when he was arrested and tortured for wanting to expose what the military regime was inflicting on its own citizens.

When I decided to do this series, Alicia was the second person I thought of after Michael. I called her to check in (it had been so many years, and I was still somewhat embarrassed never to have finished my original film). After leaving a message on her work phone, I called her cell and her panicked voice answered, “Hola!” Apparently she was in France doing a book tour, and I had forgotten her cell phone was only for emergencies and really only for her family. But after the initial shock of being woken up by my call, she graciously and warmly said yes, she’d be happy to be a part of my project and we’d talk upon her return.

When I met Alicia and her family in 2009 my life changed forever. Being in relationship and having real conversations with people who have survived the worst of what humanity is capable of and who have managed to maintain their sense of humor, creative flow, and inner light feels like a miracle. My entire perspective shifted because of them. And so that is what I want to share with all of you in the second episode of the Belonging Series.

I just returned from filming the majority of their story in LA at the end of September. When I went there I had thought that the focus of the episode would be Alicia only, but as soon as I started to interview Antonio, I realized that this is both of their stories and neither of their stories - this is the story of all those who have been silenced because they tried to speak out for what is right. This is the story of a couple who have banded together as their own mighty "human rights organization of two" to make major changes in the world. This is the story of a family who has not allowed their outer circumstances to dictate their inner being.

Through the sharing of Alicia and Antonio’s story in Episode #2, you will get a chance to learn what it’s like to thrive despite persecution and torture from your own government, exile from your country, being political refugees in the U.S., and then struggling as immigrants. Alicia and Antonio are two of the most inspiring, fun, incredible human beings I know. Their story, their love story, will lift you up and change the way you look at everything. That’s what it’s done for me.

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